SAMI MOKBEL: Raheem Sterling is at a crossroads after being left out of England’s squad… with the Chelsea winger one of four Three Lions stalwarts told to up their game by Gareth Southgate
- Raheem Sterling was left out of the England squad announced on Wednesday
- It is a far cry from when he was one of the pivotal figures in the national team
- Question marks continue to be raised over Harry Maguire and Kalvin Phillips
Two summers ago, during those balmy nights of Euro 2020, the image of an England team without Raheem Sterling, Harry Maguire, Kalvin Phillips and Jordan Pickford would have been unthinkable.
Sterling, now 28, was England’s star of the tournament, Maguire, 30, the bedrock of their run to the final, Phillips, 27, the midfield linchpin who held it all together and Pickford, 29, the man behind a defence who conceded just one goal from open play during the entire tournament.
So, with that in mind, yesterday’s England press conference — during which Gareth Southgate revealed his squad for June’s Euro 2024 qualifiers against Malta and North Macedonia — should act as a cautionary tale.
Sterling was left out of the squad altogether, a mutual decision made following talks between the player and Southgate to help ease the physical and mental strain on a man who has endured a turbulent season.
Maguire, Phillips and Pickford were named in the 25-man party, but their selections were somewhat tempered by pointed warnings from Southgate about their international futures.
Raheem Sterling was left out of England’s squad to face Malta and North Macedonia in June
The Chelsea striker is no longer as integral to the England squad as he was a few years ago
But, as Mail Sport predicted yesterday, it was Sterling who emerged as the big talking point. His season has been affected by constant injury, disrupted by managerial changes and huge instability on and off the pitch at Stamford Bridge.
We should not forget, either, the incident when armed intruders broke into his Surrey home that resulted in him flying back from the World Cup.
‘Following a private conversation between coach and player, a mutual decision has been made for Raheem Sterling to sit out the upcoming internationals, focusing instead on recuperating his body in preparation for the upcoming season,’ read a statement from Sterling’s camp.
Southgate has used this tactic before. He left Jordan Henderson out of last summer’s UEFA Nations League squad. Five months later, the Liverpool skipper emerged as a key player for England at the World Cup. There is hope this decision can lead to a similar path.
Indeed the mood music emerging out of Wembley yesterday was that Sterling remains central to Southgate’s plans.
On Sterling’s part, he remains as fully committed to England as he ever was.
Yet, it must be stressed that he is no longer an automatic starter for his country. The emergence of Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and a revitalised Marcus Rashford underlines the sense that the Chelsea star is no longer as integral as he once was.
That Southgate dodged a question about whether Sterling would have been selected had there not been a mutual agreement is perhaps an indication of the future. That said, a rest could be exactly what Sterling needs after his season to forget. Southgate believes that to be the case.
Gareth Southgate believes that Sterling will play a crucial role in getting Chelsea top six again
‘I can’t see a scenario when Chelsea aren’t in the top six next year, and I’m sure he will be fundamental to that,’ said Southgate. ‘If I was looking at him I would always back him to respond strongly and to have the resilience and tenacity to prove himself.
‘He has shown time and again for us that he has been an important player. His mental toughness stands out.
‘I had to make calls during the World Cup where you’ve got to go with what you feel is right for the team. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t really appreciate the important goals he has scored for us, the big matches he has made the difference in, and the fact that he will do that again.
‘He’s an important part of our group and that remains the same but I also understand as a player that it is difficult.’
And it appears Sterling isn’t the only player who will need to hit the ground running next season. Yet again Maguire’s selection was a major bone of contention among England supporters on social media yesterday.
Harry Maguire’s place in the squad continues to be questioned due to lack of Man United play
Jordan Pickford (L) and Kalvin Phillips have also been warned about their England places
The derision is understandable. The centre back has spent much of Manchester United’s season on the bench and is currently being kept out of the team by Luke Shaw — a left back. Phillips hasn’t fared muchbetter. The midfielder has made one Premier League start for Manchester City since his £42million move from Leeds last summer.
It is getting harder to justify their selection — and Southgate agrees. The England boss said: ‘It’s not a situation that can continue for ever. They are important players for us but we’ve got to keep searching for competition in that area of the pitch.’
And the prospect of first-choice goalkeeper Pickford plying his trade in the Championship next season has also not passed Southgate by.
His club Everton could suffer on Sunday, and when asked whether he could still select Pickford if he isn’t a top-flight performer next season, Southgate replied: ‘That would depend on how well he was playing, but it wouldn’t be ideal because clearly the level of attacks, finishing, speed of the game would be completely different so I think it would be difficult.’
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